A Wine Wand for Wild-Ale Wizardry

When it comes to making barrel-aged beers, a growing number of breweries are looking to wine producers and their tools to help with the process.

John M. Verive Jan 17, 2019 - 8 min read

A Wine Wand for Wild-Ale Wizardry Primary Image

Photo by John M. Verive

In the San Gabriel Valley north of Los Angeles, there’s a brewery that casts a shadow, figuratively and literally, on the local landscape: the Anheuser-Busch plant opened in 1954, occupying a ninety-four-acre swath of the city of Van Nuys.

Tanks and silos are easily visible from the nearby freeway. Railroad tracks crisscross the neighboring streets bringing materials to the 1.7 million-square-foot brewery. Some 275 trucks visit daily to pick up the more than thirty brands of beer brewed under the AB umbrella. The Bud Light is beechwood aged in 4,000- barrel lagering tanks; there are sixteen such tanks in the cellar. The plant makes beer on an industrial scale. One mile away at Cellador Ales, the beer is made very differently: one barrel at a time. Founded by husband and wife team Kevin and Sara Osborne in 2014, Cellador was built as an outlet for creative energy and entrepreneurial spirit.

All the beer made at Cellador is fermented in oak, and the small brewery space is filled wall-to-wall and floor-to-rafters with stacks of mostly wine barrels sourced from California’s Central Coast with a few choice spirit barrels mixed in. No stainless-steel fermentors or brewhouse is in sight, and all the wort is produced off-site. Much of the beer is re- fermented with fruit sourced from around California, and everything from sour cherries to heirloom varieties of peaches from the renowned Masumoto Family Farm to carrots flavor Cellador beer. Getting all that fruit into wine barrels requires some special tools (namely a restaurant-grade immersion blender and a powerful juicer), but it’s getting the finished beer out of the barrels that’s the real trick.

A Page from the Winemaker’s Book

Like so many of the barrels that Cellador relies on for fermentation, the tool they use to get the beer out of those barrels also originated in wine country. The Bulldog Pup is a specialized racking cane that uses gas pressure to gently push liquid out of a barrel without the agitation and possible oxygenation that pumping can sometimes cause. Designed by Don Othman, who founded Bulldog Manufacturing as a mobile metal shop to service the burgeoning Central Coast wine industry in 1975, the Pup was created to meet the needs of California pinot noir producers. In the mid-eighties, the finicky pinot noir grapes confounded winemakers who struggled with oxygenation and decided traditional racking methods were too violent for the delicate pinot juice. A winemaker asked Othman for a better way to transfer the pinot and prevent oxidation, and he began to develop an alternative.

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The Pup was introduced in 1986 and was a hit among California’s pinot producers. Soon word spread, and wineries from around the globe were ordering the custom-fabricated wands from Othman. The improved racking cane features a few new tricks: An expanding silicone bung creates the seal needed to pressurize the barrel, and an integrated sightglass and adjustment sleeve allow for the cane’s inlet to be placed just above the lees in the barrel. Winemakers use inert and inexpensive nitrogen to pressurize barrels to between 10–15 PSI. It’s a simple design executed well, and the Othmans say they’ve sold thousands of Pups to wineries in every wine-producing country on the planet.

Some time in the nineties, brewers began calling. Othman helped build Firestone Walker’s original brewhouse in Los Olivos, California, and parts of the Pup were actually repurposed into the original Firestone Union manifold.

As craft brewers began their explorations in oak, they found a need for a pumpless racking solution as well, and winemakers told them about the Pup. Don Othman’s wife and business partner, Gwen Othman, says she thinks New Belgium was the first craft brewery to ask for a Pup. Gas pressure racking arms—both the Pup and its imitators—are now standard equipment at craft breweries moving a lot of liquid through oak barrels.

A Go-To Tool

At Cellador, every beer is in and out of barrels, onto and off of fruit—sometimes several times before it’s bottled—and Osborne knew that he needed a bulletproof solution that would be easy on the beer and easy to wrangle by himself.

“Our philosophy when starting out was to do everything as manually and naturally as possible,” Osborne says. “I’m really worried about oxygen pick-up—especially at the late stages. I don’t want to mess with pumps.”

Cellador was built to be a small-volume wild-ale brewery that could take advantage of both California’s nonpareil produce and L.A.’s escalating thirst for sour beer. The Pup was a go-to tool almost from day one of the brewery.

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Osborne’s Pup has seen better days. It’s worn from use and doesn’t seal barrels as firmly as it once did, but every beer he’s made over two-plus years has traveled through it. He demonstrated the process while working on the brewery’s second-anniversary beer.

The barrels selected for the blend are arranged on the limited floor space in preparation for filling his blending tank. He purges the tank, all the hoses, and the Pup with CO2 and inserts the racking cane into the bunghole of the first barrel. A twist of the brass sleeve above the Pup’s bung tightens the cane into place, and Osborne locks it down with a pair of ratchet straps. He sets the wall-mounted CO2 gas regulator to 10 PSI (he uses a little less pressure when transferring beer from a fruited barrel) and slowly opens the inlet valve on the Pup while holding a flashlight to the sightglass.

He adjusts the depth of the cane to get a clear flow, then stands back for the five minutes it takes the barrel to drain. After filling barrels, it’s the easiest step in Cellador’s whole production.

Cellador’s production is based on wood fermentations with mixed cultures, and it features a bounty of fruit (and sometimes vegetable) additions, but there is little standard operating procedure beyond the mechanics of transferring liquid among tote, barrels, and blending tank (and often back to barrels and back to tank) and into bottles.

Osborne says he learned blending and wild-ale production “by just jumping into it at the brewery,” and Cellador’s ales are some of the best mixed-fermentation beer being made in Los Angeles right now. Experimentations with pitching bottle dregs into carboys in his homebrew days led to the diverse collection of mature colonies of microorganisms that live at Cellador (still housed in those same 5-gallon carboys).

He started experimenting with wood in a quarter cask–sized whiskey barrel, and that barrel is still at Cellador among the 150 other wine and spirit barrels. Osborne works from inspiration and instinct. His process is nimble and allows for quick reactions to finding great produce, how liquid develops in the barrels, and visits from the muses. Patience, an eye for detail, a sharp palate, and an openness to inspiration are Osborne’s most important tools, but right after that, there’s the Bulldog Pup.

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